Wednesday, February 16, 2011

TBR Challenge: The Secret Pearl

Fascinating assignment this month:  Read a book with a less-than-conventionally-attractive protagonist.

First challenge:  locate a book in my stash that met that criterion!  I started reading back cover copy for book after book and quickly discovered that all heroines are “beautiful.”  Seriously – pick up five books from your TBR pile and I predict all of them will describe the heroine as “beautiful.”  Not “attractive,” “pretty,” or “lovely” – definitely beautiful.

I’d gone through 20 or more books before I got bored and went to the helpful "Less Than Beautiful" list on AAR.  As it turned out, the easiest way to make a conventionally attractive protagonist “less than” is to give him or her some scars.  Allowing for a pretty sorry, beautiful person to be scarred takes care of the problem easily.  (Well, unless I’m counting a Betty Neels romance as part of my TBR stack: she has scores of “plain but with lovely eyes” heroines.  But they aren’t in my TBR, so they were off the table, so to speak.)

Thus, I picked Mary Balogh’s The Secret Pearl.  Adam Kent, the Duke of Ridgeway, is facially scarred as a result of a British bayonet wielded by a terrified youngster, and elsewhere on his body by enemy fire.  The facial scars are bad – far beyond rakishness – while the latter has torn up his left hip and thigh.  But don’t be fooled – his grace is Richard Armitage after a few hours with the make-up artist.  Darkly handsome, broody, and dangerous to know.  Not exactly Quasimodo.  So did I cheat on the assignment?  Enh, who cares – it’s Richard freaking Armitage.

And Fleur Hamilton (nee Isabella Fleur Bradshaw) is Nicole Kidman: strawberry blonde and lovely, if a bit Botox’ed.  (Seriously – there’s stoicism and serenity, and then there’s a temporary paralysis of the facial muscles.  I’m not sure Fleur wasn’t edging toward the latter in a couple key scenes.)

They meet, with a romance novel’s proper disregard for logic and common sense, in the shadows of the Drury Theatre.  Fleur is there to sell her body (she believes her virtue is already lost to her) simply because it’s the last thing she has to sell.  And, as fate would have it, she manages to pick the one night when Adam Kent is willing to abandon a long stretch without recourse to prostitutes.  (I’ve written elsewhere about my distaste for Mary Balogh’s belief that there is only one word to describe a woman who accepts money in exchange for sexual favors or activity: whoreThe Secret Pearl is as bad, if not worse, than A Precious Jewel on this point.)

But if you look past all the other things Fleur might have done to avoid the necessity of selling her body, you quite quickly get to all the fun parts of this book, many of which evoke a Jane Eyre sort of angsty-ness.  Fleur gets a position as the governess to Adam Kent’s daughter, Pamela.  That puts Fleur in service at Willoughby, the Duke of Ridgeway’s estate.  His grace is married, but the wife, Sybil, isn’t locked in the attic, although she seems just as demented as Mrs. Rochester.  And there’s a full-blown Gothic plot with Matthew Bradshaw, Fleur’s cousin and nemesis.  And another Gothic plot with Adam’s half-brother Thomas.

the role of Happy Endings, Dorsetshire is being played by Kimmeridge
Okay, so look past all the Gothic high drama, you quickly get on to the bumpy road toward Happy Endings (a quaint village in Dorsetshire) that Adam and Fleur must travel.  And that brings me to the BEST character in the whole book:  his grace's secretary, Peter Houghton.

I lurve Houghton.  He’s Bunter in the Dorothy Sayers books, who had a special knack for chatting up older women in his efforts to bring back information for Lord Peter Wimsey.  Houghton’s a behind the scenes Hercule Poirot, well able to ferret out the very juiciest gossip necessary for a successful resolution of Fleur’s troubles.  And Houghton serves as a wonderful Greek Chorus vis à vis the duke’s feelings for, and about, Fleur, whom Houghton believes is his grace’s ladybird (see? Houghton knows the correct form of address for a female of dubious sexual virtue in the care and keeping of an aristocrat...!).  Quite late in the book, Houghton thinks for the very first time, “She was not his grace’s ladybird after all.  She was his love.”  It is then that Houghton pities the duke.

I would have loved the Duke of Ridgeway more if it weren’t for two things.  First, he’s not the Duke of Bedwyn, who does the supercilious, omniscient, and omnipotent agent-of-justice-rendered-powerless-by-love so much better.  Frankly, Ridgeway takes too long to solve stuff he could and should have solved sooner.  Second, he doesn’t seem to love himself enough.  He’s far too quick to settle for no loaf at all.  By the time he’s on the outskirts of Happy Endings, he seems to dawdle.  (Well, to be fair, Fleur dawdles too.  It’s a long enough book; I have no idea why, when all obstacles on the road to Happy Endings have been cleared, they dawdle.  Propriety’s sake?  Or sheer stupidity?)

Now, I know this post reads as a rather mocking commentary on the book, so you're forgiven for thinking I didn't like it.  Actually, I gobbled it up.  But when I’d read the last page, it was done.  No need to reread the ending or the angsty-est bits or otherwise wallow in the book’s many pleasures.  A wonderful read; now on to something else...

So my ultimate impression of The Secret Pearl?  It’s Chinese food: delicious and exciting, but not all that memorable.


  1. Always fun to compare reactions. I first read this ca. 2008 and I've probably reread it upwards of 10 times since then. I loved A Precious Jewel as well. :)

  2. LOL! I had a feeling it was one of your favorites. Well, thank you for not hitting me over the head with how shortsighted I am for not adoring TSP more! :-)

  3. I simply adored this book. It's my favorite of all of MB's books. Well, this one and Simply Love. I am a sucker for a truly tortured hero, and Adam Kent and Sydnum Butler get me every time. I too have read this book many times. I think when it comes to the dawdling after they have a smooth path to happiness...they are both scared. All the pain they both went through in their lives, their walls were still up. It's completely understandable, and mimicks real life. As for Adam being self loathing. He HATES his physical appearance, finds himself repellant, and Sybil has only made that fester and grow for years, so why wouldn't he feel that way?

    Anyway, I enjoyed your review of this book. Ive heard SI many negatives over the years because of the infidelity aspect. Thank you :)

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed the review. There is always a risk when reviewing a book others have adored but which the reviewer only liked. I could (quite reasonably) be accused of missing all the BEST bits.

      My theory is that there's alchemy going on which makes it your favorite book but not mine. (Mine is Slightly Dangerous.) But how does one defend or deny the alchemy? It's either there or it isn't.


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